Cell Phones on Planes: Nuisance or Necessity?

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Airline passengers who cringe at the idea of seatmates with cell phones have a friend in the U.S. House of Representatives top lawmaker on aviation issues.

''The last thing most air passengers want is to be forced to listen to their neighbor chat on their cell phone about their ailments, their dating problems, the latest reality TV show or up-to-the-minute estimates of time of arrival,'' says Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure's subcommittee on aviation.

On Thursday, his panel discussed whether to allow cell phones and other wireless devices to be used during flights.

The two agencies that would have to approve such a change - the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission - are looking into the idea.

While the annoyance factor is important, safety concerns are the reason for the FAA's ban.

The FAA is looking into whether cell phones, BlackBerries and wireless laptops pose unacceptable risks to flight control systems. The study is due in December 2006.

The FCC is taking public comment on the idea, which is generating many negative responses.

Technology companies and business travel groups support the idea, saying the wireless world needs to extend into the sky.

Greely Koch, president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, told lawmakers that business travelers should be able to use cell phones and have access to e-mail so they can make better use of long hours in planes.

But Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said cell phones could escalate into air rage, affecting safety by distracting flight attendants.

She gave the example of a cell phone user who swatted a fellow passenger and a flight attendant when they asked him to turn off his phone. He was taken off the flight.

Even Mica, R-Fla., acknowledges there are advantages to cell phones on planes. For example, federal air marshals could use them or other wireless devices to relay information about suspicious passengers or unusual occurrences aboard an aircraft.

Among the issues to be resolved were the ban to end is whether electromagnetic emissions would interfere with an aircraft's avionics.

David Watrous, president of RTCA Inc., an advisory group studying wireless safety on planes for the FAA, said if signals from the devices interfere with radio navigation systems, a pilot might think the plane is cruising safely when it really could be heading toward a mountain.

There has been only one known case of a cell phone creating a safety problem, according to Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety.

In 2001, shortly after takeoff from Ljubljana, Slovenia, a cell phone left on in the cargo hold of a Canadair regional jet triggered a false fire alarm. The pilot then made an emergency landing.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, said if the ban were lifted, airlines would have to show the FAA that specific models of cell phones do not interfere with any type of plane.

Also, the airlines would have to find out what phones work on what planes.

''This is a nightmare,'' DeFazio said.

There also is concern among law enforcement agencies that terrorists might seek to use wireless devices aboard planes to detonate improvised bombs.

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